Some young Americans go to Chile for the culture or the natural beauty. Jamie (Michael Cera) goes for the drugs. He spends his time sampling the country’s cocaine and partying every chance he gets, but his ultimate goal is a famed hallucinatory cactus. Sebastián Silva’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus throws a final obstacle at the arrogant anti-hero as he approaches the end of his odyssey: a harmless, friendly hippie girl.
The movie is a comedy not of clashing personalities, but of one personality that can’t even fathom the other. Jamie is the kind of guy who automatically assumes he is the most interesting person in the room and quickly judges everyone else. Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann) has a completely opposite worldview. She loves everyone and wants everyone to have a good time without any preconception of what a good time entails. Jamie meets Crystal, a fellow American, while sky high at a party, and insistently invites her to come on a road trip, only to be horrified when she calls the next day to join him and his friends.
The trip that ensues is a mix of absurdity, social observation and primal comedy. The plan is to obtain a mescaline-loaded San Pedro cactus, which shamans have used for 3,000 years, then drive to a desert beach and trip-out like never before. Crystal Fairy poses zero actual threat to the mission—she’s on board—yet Jamie feels threatened and constantly tries to maintain authority with his friends, a set of Chilean brothers (Juan Andrés Silva, José Miguel Silva and Agustín Silva—Sebastián’s brothers), who serve as straight men to counter the extreme personalities of the foreigners from the north. The characters aren’t seeking any particular meaning, just a majestic high. There are lessons to be learned, but whether any of the them bother to learn them is another matter.
Crystal Fairy is the first English-language (albeit with a healthy dose of Spanish) movie by Chilean writer/director Silva, whose work includes the darkly funny social comedies The Maid and Old Cats. He shot with an outline rather than a script, and it shows. The movie has a relaxed, casual feel in both pacing and photography. The story progresses in a natural and linear matter, but is in no real hurry to do so. Sometimes it bursts to life, as in the uproarious climax to the cactus hunt, but at other times it’s happy to quietly observe its characters.
Silva’s previous films distinguished themselves with fine performances, and this one is no different. Hoffmann and Cera play off one another magnificently, filling each scene with a mixture of chuckles and cringes.
Cera is known for his nervous, self-conscious, apologetic persona, and this performance will be noted as dramatically against type. While Jamie’s as neurotic as Cera’s past characters, he’s also also unabashedly self-centered. He’ll be damned if anyone will spoil his precise vision of how things should unfold, but he makes his displeasure known with passive aggressive comments and unpleasant jokes.
As Crystal Fairy, Hoffmann provides the perfect counterpoint. No matter how dickish Jamie’s behavior is, she laughs it off without missing a beat. Silva and Hoffmann succeed by allowing the character to exist on her own terms. The guys may make fun of her armpit hair, but the movie itself never mocks her.
As outgoing and pleasant as Crystal Fairy is, there is a haunting element in her personality. She consistently shows how unflappably open she is to everyone she meets, ready to expose her uncensored self to all. Yet with that openness comes a certain need. By giving so much trust to someone she hardly knows, who has done nothing to earn it, she reveals her own longing to see that trust rewarded, to see people rise to the occasion and not take advantage of her kindness. Jamie has never risen to any occasion, and therein lies all the tension necessary to fuel the movie’s comedy and drama. Structure and plot points aren’t necessary because the movie is about feelings and interactions more than anything else.
It’s best to approach Crystal Fairy not as a narrative, but as a distillation of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It isn’t clean; it isn’t routine. It isn’t completely coherent or tightly structured. It’s hilarious, awkward, surprising, random, moving, unrepeatable and distinctly memorable. And it’s all those things in such a way that you couldn’t have one without the others.
Director: Sebastián Silva
Writer: Sebastián Silva
Starring: Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffmann, Juan Andrés Silva, José Miguel Silva, Agustín Silva
Release Date: July 12, 2013